Three Ways of Getting it Wrong: Induction in Wonderland

In Richard Brian Davis (ed.), Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy: Curiouser and Curiouser. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 93-107 (2010)
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Alice encounters at least three distinct problems in her struggles to understand and navigate Wonderland. The first arises when she attempts to predict what will happen in Wonderland based on what she has experienced outside of Wonderland. In many cases, this proves difficult -- she fails to predict that babies might turn into pigs, that a grin could survive without a cat or that playing cards could hold criminal trials. Alice's second problem involves her efforts to figure out the basic nature of Wonderland. So, for example, there is nothing Alice could observe that would allow her to prove whether Wonderland is simply a dream. The final problem is manifested by Alice's attempts to understand what the various residents of Wonderland mean when they speak to her. In Wonderland, "mock turtles" are real creatures and people go places with a "porpoise" (and not a purpose). All three of these problems concern Alice's attempts to infer information about unobserved events or objects from those she has observed. In philosophical terms, they all involve *induction*. In this essay, I will show how Alice's experiences can be used to clarify the relation between three more general problems related to induction. The first problem, which concerns our justification for beliefs about the future, is an instance of David Hume's classic *problem of induction*. Most of us believe that rabbits will not start talking tomorrow -- the problem of induction challenges us to justify this belief. Even if we manage to solve Hume's puzzle, however, we are left with what W.V.O. Quine calls the problems of *underdetermination *and *indeterminacy.* The former problem asks us to explain how we can determine *what the world is really like *based on *everything that could be observed about the world. *So, for example, it seems plausible that nothing that Alice could observe would allow her to determine whether eating mushrooms causes her to grow or the rest of the world to shrink. The latter problem, which might remain even if resolve the first two, casts doubt on our capacity to determine *what a certain person means *based on *which words that person uses.* This problem is epitomized in the Queen's interpretation of the Knave's letter. The obstacles that Alice faces in getting around Wonderland are thus, in an important sense, the same types of obstacles we face in our own attempts to understand the world. Her successes and failures should therefore be of real interest.
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